I’m about to head off for a week’s stalking in the Scottish highlands. It’s one of the highlights of my year: stunning scenery, exhilarating exercise, cracking company and unbeatable sport. However, I have to keep my enthusiasm and excitement somewhat under wraps until we’re safely out of London. It’s fine for discussing over long lunches with friends, and during cosy evenings in clubs; it’s not, however, the easiest of subjects for the school gates, or the play dates, which have been my ‘day job’ for the last four years.
A lot of urban-dwellers, and some rural ones, are unclear on the whys and wherefores of deerstalking. The mainstream media gives it very little attention, and when a stalking related story does make the national press, it is invariably an inaccurate and unhelpful picture that comes across. Accounts often fail to fully explain why wild deer are shot in the UK, and draw an artificial distinction between stalking for environmental and welfare reasons, and stalking for ‘sport’.
I don’t claim to be an expert on deer management or stalking, but I’m going to have a stab at painting a clearer picture than the average article in the popular press: both why stalking takes place in this country, and why I choose to spend my holidays crawling up a hill in Scotland in a pair of breeks instead of sliding down one in Austria on a pair of skis.
To begin at the beginning, why are wild deer shot in the UK? The short answer is because there are too many of them. As often with short answers, it begs further questions: why are there too many? Why is that a bad thing? And are there any alternatives? The answers to these are, broadly speaking, as follows:
There are too many deer because, other than man, they have no natural predators in Britain. The last wild wolves died in the 18th century, and there hasn’t been a wild bear doing its business in the woods of Britain since medieval times. Deer are able to reach and feed on relatively poor vegetation and their numbers have increased exponentially over the past couple of centuries.
Increased numbers pose a number of problems, for the deer themselves and also for humans and other animals. Whilst deer don’t require five star fodder to thrive, they can’t live on thin air. Numbers have increased, but areas of traditional habitat have not, if anything they have decreased. More deer, combined with less food doesn’t spell health and happiness for herds. It also drives them to seek sustenance and shelter in new areas – often much closer to towns and roads than previously.
The rumbling stomachs of hungry deer have been the death knell for many a reforestation project, finding young trees a handy way gain extra calories. Overgrazing by deer has knock-on effects for other species of animals as well as plants. More deer near roads means more accidents caused by cars hitting, or swerving to avoid them. Collisions with deer are not only dangerous and damaging for motorists, but also often lead to a needlessly painful and drawn-out death for the deer. More deer in public parks mean more deer parasites, notably ticks, with the potential to infect people and pet dogs with Lyme disease, and other unwelcome infections.
Scotland is the part of Britain most associated in popular consciousness with wild deer, and it is in Scotland that the debate over deer management methods has been at its most emotive and controversial. The ‘traditional’ method of keeping deer numbers down is by stalking, some of which is lucratively let to paying guests, generating income for the estates on which it takes place.
In the past two decades, however, alternative methods have hit the headlines. The most notable of these have been, at one end of the scale, proposals to reduce human involvement to a minimum and reintroduce predators such as wolves and lynx, and, at the other end, to dramatically increase human involvement and impact with large scale culls. The aims of those espousing these alternatives is conservation – mainly ‘rewilding’ and reforestation – and the conservationists want to see deer numbers cut dramatically.
The large scale culls came in for some heavy criticism on animal welfare grounds, and the wolves are being kept from these shores as nobody has yet demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that their effect will be as desired, or that their reintroduction wouldn’t have disastrous results for other species.
In spite of the bad press that traditional, tweed-clad stalking often gets, it is the most ‘humane’ way to keep a check on the deer population. Most deer shot on the hill following a traditional stalk receive the rifle bullet as a bolt from the blue. They have no inkling that it’s coming – if they had they’d be off, and there’d be no shot – and, once the bullet arrives, death is usually very swift, far swifter and kinder than dying of hunger on the bare hillside over the winter, or at the roadside with internal injuries following a collision with a vehicle. I know which way I’d rather go.
However, just because I agree that something ought to be done, it doesn’t necessarily follow that I ought to do it myself. Why don’t I just leave it to ‘the professionals’ and do a bit of target shooting, or better still, forget the guns and go on a nice beach holiday…? That way, I could avoid all sorts of awkward questions and conversations.
I adore the landscape, the company, the exercise, the chance to wear a lot of tweed, even the Scottish weather. I love the way every sense is used to the full, so that every sound, every dew-drop, every breath of wind is felt a thousand times more sharply than usual. And, at least as much, I value the responsibility of being behind the rifle, of being forced to concentrate on something of the utmost seriousness, to confront the often ill-founded assumptions and attitudes that clog the arteries of modern life.
So many elements of the way we live now are sanitised and certified almost beyond recognition. It’s hard to think of most meat that makes it to the supermarket shelves as having even been alive, let alone accept responsibility for the conditions under which that life was lived, and for the death that brought it to a close.
Perhaps the full explanation is still a little too ‘heavy’ for school gates conversations in north London. However, I’d like to think that if more people begin to understand the issues involved, it won’t be quite such a taboo topic. In the meantime, I’ll be starting a new ‘day job’ on my return from the highlands, and it’s one where stalking talk is very much on the menu…